Saturday, September 28, 2013

It's All Academic

Fall is my very favorite time of year, and this year the healing effects are like balm to the soul.  After our challenging start to the school year, the doubts that assailed and the re-thinking of everything, it is wonderful to have finally settled into what works for us,and to have life be a bit predictable. Well, as predictable as it ever will be for us.

As the cooler weather descends upon us, and  mountains reveal their snow capped peaks already, we are moving along very well with school, and everyone is enjoying the routine we have.  We still have Miss Mary coming to help with reading two mornings a week, and invariably she brings along some surprise.  She is a well traveled soul, who often has artifacts to share with us from places we are studying.  A few weeks back it was a photo journal and several items that related to our Aztec, Inca and Maya study, and we handled a soft alpaca wall hanging, and saw items from little villages near Machu Picchu.  last week it was Concord grapes from her garden, and we attempted to make homemade grape juice with them.  It didn't quite turn out as we had planned, but it was fun to play with it anyway:

We are back to enjoying learning, after a long hiatus trying to fit into a system that wasn't right for us.  I am so glad I didn't hang in there solely for the funding.  Now, we are back to many moments like this:

A boy, his blankie, and a good book...oh yea, and a guard dog :-)  Josh has gotten hooked on a book series from the library, and has read about 10 the past 5 days or so. They are fluff books, fun adventure stories, but several times he has grabbed a pillow and gone out to lay on the trampoline and read.  We are working really hard at school, but there is now a little more time for the joy.  Volleyball makes it hard to have extra time, but I am trying to make sure we set aside "just because" time for learning.  The other day, Josh wanted to learn more about his ring.  He has taken a fancy to wearing one of the rings we got the boys when on one of our adoption trips.  It has a Muslim symbol on it, and is the style of a class ring.  He loves this and wears it all the time now:

I am so glad we thought ahead all those years ago in purchasing a few specific items for the kids to remain connected to their heritage.  For Josh in particular, this ring seems to fill a need.  As we enter the time of year when he always seems to struggle with sadness and insecurity, this seems to help a little.  He is back to following me around the house, worrying about the dog being missing every five minutes, etc. but this year this ring seems to be something concrete that is helping lessen things a tiny bit.  By December those fears will fade, and he'll likely be back to his old self once is like clockwork and we can depend on his emotional turmoil every year around this time.

School and learning is richer in so many ways, and I feel much freer to tweak and completely change as needed, which we might need more than other families.  

All the kids are doing well in their coursework, and here in a nutshell is what we are seeing:

1) Matthew is LOVING AutoCAD, as we knew he would, and he said he could work on it for hours if he had time.  He wants to pursue certification in it once he is done with his coursework and the additional courses he can take with his distance learning instructor in Florida.  He is almost ready for another promotion in Civil Air Patrol, and his group commander is trying to learn more about Ground School.  He wants to pursue his pilot's license, but even with Civil Air Patrol scholarships for some things, I am not sure how we can manage it, but we'll start with Ground School if they get that organized, and then take it one step at a time.  He's doing so well in CAP and learning so much, that we want to encourage him as much as possible.

2)  Angela is really stretching with her reading, and is tackling some very difficult texts for her English level.  We are so proud of her for taking it upon herself to challenge herself to read higher difficulty content.  She is trying her longest book yet, at 400 pages, and it took her 2 weeks to wade through the first 100 pages, but she is keeping at it.  In addition, she is also working slowly on an incredibly difficult read, in terms of metaphor and symbolism, with attempting  to read with me Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.  It was her request, and she said she doesn't care if it takes us a year, she wants to read it and understand all of it.  Of all the kids, Angela is the one who is working closely to the grade level we have her at in just about all subjects.  As a 7th grader, she is well placed, and she appears to have no learning challenges aside from being an English Language Learner.  She takes her school work very seriously, and is talking about college possibly, maybe for counseling, psychiatry, or something along those lines...a perfect fit for her should she decide to go that route.  She has asked for a class in beginning psychology in high school, which we will probably thoroughly enjoy doing together.

3)  Olesya has POPPED with her writing!  Oh my goodness, many times I would not know that she is an English Language Learner when reading her papers. It is like overnight she shifted into high gear, and as kids often do she made a big leap in skill level.  She surpasses Angela in writing and grammar.  We have a big problem with math, however, and she clearly has some sort of math disability, there is no longer any question about that.  We have been told by our prior school coordinator that she likely has Dyscalculia, based upon her previous experience working with kids with similar difficulties.  If she were in the public school system, we would pursue testing and accommodations, but being at home we don't have a need to do that and can just keep pounding the basics and accommodating as we need to.  It is a confidence issue for her, but over time she is seeing herself as very intelligent, yet having an area of difficulty.  In some odd way, I think her seeing Matthew struggle mightily in an area has helped, as she sees Matt as intelligent, but just having a hard time in a single area.  it has helped her gain a little perspective on her own intelligence, and no judge herself solely on an inability in one subject area.  We are going to finish 5th grade math with her, then work on some remedial workbooks and skills to firm up those concepts. Olesya is incredibly careful with her written work and projects, and will often redo them to make them even neater, and she is a solid 6th grader in all areas, too.

4)  Kenny Bo Benny...this kid is unbelievable.  Just unbelievable.  He has made so much progress, and we are seeing connections being made that would have been impossible 2 years ago.  His math gifts are just  He scored Post High School in more than one math topic!!  the work with his speech therapist helped us learn how to teach him more organizational skills, which will probably plague him his entire life, but are improving a little bit.  What has made a world of difference, though it initially did so in a very subtle way, was being able to enroll him in the online program Fast Forword for auditory processing disorder.  I had hesitated to use the gift of money donated toward meeting Kenny's needs, as I hadn't had official confirmation that Auditory Processing was indeed at least part  of what we were dealing with.  When his speech therapist turned to me after the first 15 minutes of working with me and asked why they hadn't tested him for it, I felt we had enough confirmation to move forward with that enormously expensive program.  It has been almost a year of working with it daily, and finally Kenny is hearing many things correctly!!  He is more able to tune in, and to catch things we are saying better and more accurately, and we have far less frustration.  He has permanent loss of function, and will never fully take in information well by solely listening, but it is definitely improved, and for a kid like Kenny any percentage of improvement in any area may be enough to tip him over the edge to eventual self-sufficiency.  His reading is better, but still has glitches that we continue to work on. I got another program to work with which is not really phonics, but is breaking things down into chunks when reading, and may help stop word guessing.  He is comprehending fairly well, and is reading at the 7th grade level, but not nearly as fluently as Angela is in the same textbook.  he is thinking about his future, and while we are all still uncertain what that may look like, I am glad he is making plans and thinking ahead. He is talking about owning a business of some sort, and part-time ministry work, possibly with young kids.

5)  Josh continues to astound all of us, and he is doing everything the "big kids" are doing.  He is doing biology and history right along with them, and seems more able to organize information than any of the older just comes naturally to him.  He is halfway through 7th grade math and will probably start pre-algebra in the spring.  He is doing mainly 6th grade work in everything else, as he and Olesya are pretty evenly matched and do their literature and grammar together.  We recently had a fun challenge, which I had not expected Josh to take on. We have been using this very cool set of 550 flash cards that are uniquely presented in a visual format, and on the back of the card there are synonyms, antonyms, and the word is used in a sentence.  These words are SAT words, and are high level vocabulary.  They were created by a couple of homeschool siblings and are called Marie's Words and you can find them here  Here is what they look like:

I was totally sold on these cards when we saw them at the homeschool show, and the creators of the cards challenged the girls...knowing they had only spoken English for 3 try and recall any 3 words that they presented.  They showed them 3 cards and explained them to the girls, then we had a few minutes of conversation, and then they asked the girls what the words meant. they recalled each one perfectly! I was thinking more about Kenny than anyone else, but knew they'd be good for all the kids, so I bought them.

As we have worked on them, we got to around 30 or so, and then the kids teased me and Matt bet me that I couldn't use all 30 of them in one sitting writing some sort of article.  I then told him I would do it if HE did, and we were off!  We didn't set a time limit, but I took about 45 minutes and Matthew took about an hour.  We didn't realize that Joshie sneakily decided to take up the challenge as well, and he decided to write a creative story and try to use all the words.  When it came time to read them, he shyly presented his writing to be read aloud with ours.  We all sat there with our jaws hanging open as Miss Mary read it.  While he didn't get a couple of them used 100% correctly, I was stunned how well overall he ended up using such advanced vocabulary word appropriately, and it was clear from his story that he really did know what almost all those words meant!  Though there are some grammar and spelling errors, for 10 years old, this was not half bad!  Not only that, but with all the kids I have seen several of the words turning up in their other writing.  I thought it would be fun to share what Josh wrote, and the words he used that were the list words are underlined.  Grandma Alice has always gotten a kick out of reading notes he mails her, so I know she will like this!:

     Long ago in a small village survivors of a family saw one of their own relatives be abducted by an ugly headless Greek God [or so they say]. People had a conundrum about this myth. This rumor even got to the governor of the state, he said his vocation did not deal with this sort of nonsense. Since this governor said this he assigned this to a novice  in the military to figure out what was going on, but this officer bemoaned this. Then he was so insolent to his soldiers that some even wanted a transport to another officer who was more nurturing.  The abound army of troops drove into the town. To some it was a paradise or even their utopia! Water falls were all over the great land and wild life was all over, who couldn't love this gracious territory? And if this wasn't gracious their ethics are messed up! The bad thing was the land under them was containing noxious fumes all over. After the military evacuated the people of the area,  the town was if it was a bastion of military guards all over shooting what ever came in sight.
     "I abhor what I'm doing in this wretched land. Trying to find a Greek God? Supplies went out yesterday after sarge disappeared with all our food. Today we're using our ammo to forage for food and after that we are trying to get some contact to the col (Colonel)., but we were cut off by some lightning hitting our cellphone tower." This is what the  private said to his brother who was  very superlative at every thing that he did.
     Excavating the land they found a helmet of Greek origin twenty feet under the surface. Indicated with many orders from the captain, they almost fell behind! The only person who soothed their souls was the sacrosanct priest named Paul the Second of New Orleans or so he says.  The captain had sovereign power over every thing even the most specific details. Sadly after the captain disappeared the power waned all the way to the second class Sargent Matthews. Nine days later the Sargent's convergence with the  ideas of the first class private. Now the men were getting wary and scared by the numbers abated and that night fifteen men disappeared and the next night five more what was going on? One man felt the wrath of the god, being taken by him into the skies and then he was brought back to tell the story.
     The private was always a paradigm at being tough and following orders. They said it was only a sojourn, but by now it was five months later leading into the month of Christmas and men were mad about being there way to long so they started to complain.  Sargent Matthews was the most cantankerous person on the planet [even though they were going a little overboard about this]! The ethos of this culture was so amazing with so much perseverance that the Sargent started to get more joyful and since they didn't find anything they moved out of the area and a obliterated the land. The next year the town was rebuilt, but because of the fumes under the ground, it was unlivable unless they didn't light even a match. Amazingly the aborigine descendants found a way to live.

So, with the first 30 words under our belts and the awesome results, we will definitely keep on working with this unique curriculum add-on!!

Another thing we are using with surprising interest from the kids has been three of the Great Courses from The Teaching Company. I had ordered one of the two high school courses they offer, which was Early American History.  I am always on the lookout for different ways of presenting information, and this one fit the bill as the lecturer presents vignettes from American History dressed in costume and told from the perspective of the character he is portraying. He is very good, and I had hoped this would be a good tool to accompany our
American history survey textbook.  The kids have really enjoyed the lectures thus far.  With Matt I had wanted to add in something more challenging, so I bought two of the college level courses, having no idea if they would be too far over his head or not.  They are a series of lectures on Turning Points in American History, and another titled The Skeptic's Guide to American History. these are challenging courses for any adult, and they really cause you to think about things differently.

When the other kids heard they were college level and presented by some of the best professors in the US, they were curious and wanted to see one.  We tried the first one in the Skeptic's Guide, which challenges the notion that the initial colonists practiced religious tolerance.  It was deep, even for me, but very well presented and it definitely had me seeing things a little differently by the time the 30 minute lecture was done.  Well, I guess now we are ALL going to watch ALL of them, because the kids thought they were excellent, and it taught them ideas they had never heard before.  Now, mind you, I am not going to pretend that we didn't stop and explain a lot as we viewed it, but once explained, they were able to speak intelligently about the information and they really enjoyed it...even better than the high school series.  It might take them 45 minutes to get through a 30 minute lecture with me stopping and explaining language, but so what?  I'd rather take our time and go deeper, rather than race through and hit it all shallowly. 

I figure even if some  of it is lost, there are other advantages for doing it.  They are learning how to take notes and pay attention to the key pieces of information presented. They are being inundated with high level language that one day will make total sense to them because they have been exposed to it over and over again, much as they are when listening to the sermons on Sunday morning.  And lastly, they are challenging themselves to hang in and pay attention to something that is presented that is very, very difficult for them.  

Another discovery for us was  which we are using often.  It has high school and college level courses for FREE, and better yet, they are presented as animated videos!  There are 5 quick questions after the short 7-10 minute video, and they are professionally done with great content.  This really helps cement info for Kenny, in particular, but it is also a nice add on for all the kids, and we have learned something different from each of the additional items we use along with our standard old textbook.  

All of this is SO much more interesting, and I daresay more valuable, than doing worksheet after worksheet, which was the path we were heading down this summer which sucked the life out of school for all of us.  We are all content and looking forward to an interesting time of learning together.  

There's the update!  Someday I will look back over this blog, or the kids will, and I'll be so glad I kept it up, even when it felt like I had nothing much to write about.  We will remember the hard times, and will laugh at the photos.  We'll recall what we studied, where we went, who were our friends, and who we were as a family.  It may not make interesting reading for many folks, though every once in a while there is a slice of life shared that seems to touch something for others.  Sometimes there are academic things I include on the blog specifically mentioned so that other families might find resources to help their struggling kids.  I know that many posts are too long, and if I were marketing a Mommy Blog, I'd do things very differently.  Most weeks, I am lucky if I manage to blog at all!!  But I am not marketing, I am just observing, documenting and sharing.  If someone is helped along the way, that gives me great pleasure and feels like a way of paying it back to all those who have shared their knowledge with me over the years.  But the most important thing is that our family's precious memories are preserved somewhere, and in great detail.  This ended up being waaaayyy longer than I had wanted it to be, and it is time for me to sign off...night everyone!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Answers? I Don't Know That I Have Them...

On my recent post, I received a comment that I wanted to respond publicly to, and maybe to solicit other helpful responses.  Over the years, I have actually been asked this question multiple times in multiple ways, both in person and online, and I am not really sure I have an answer.  Here is what was posted in the comments:

"Cindy, can you share your secret ? My deepest desire was for a family with laughter and joy, where the kids truely loved each other and enjoyed being with our family. My two oldest cannot stand the two youngest and the one in the middle is, well, in the middle. One minute hating the older kids and the next hating the younger ones. The younger ones adore the olders and the olders disdain each other"

I think we all desire to have a home filled with deep happiness, peace, and joy.  No one wants a family where bickering and fighting are the norm (Uh,,,yea...that would have been my brother and I, my poor mom suffered through!!) and where there never seems to be that connectedness we all yearn for.  So much of this can be personality related, for the wrong combination of personalities can really create a perfect storm for disunity.  I really and truly don't have any secrets, nor will I pretend to be an expert at parenting.  Oh, far from it!!  I am sure a few of the things we have been intentional about have worked with our specific grouping of kids, but your mileage may vary...hahaha!  And my advice is certainly not backed by a degree in anything, nor a wide array of experiences other than the five kiddos we share our life with.  However, you asked, so I'll share what I think we may have done along the way which might have helped, and they are listed in no particular order.

1)  We never, ever allow any child to say something unkind to another.  Never, and we make them apologize immediately to one another, and that apology must be sincere.  Now, mind you, we are a family that teases a lot, so I am not speaking of the little inside jokes we have, etc. that others might not understand or view as jokes, but we all do.  But even if the teasing becomes a little biting or goes too far, we put a stop to it and point out how feelings can be hurt if we push something over the edge of humor.  When I say we never allow unkindness, I really mean never...ever.  Even when Matt and Josh where very young, we would monitor their behavior with one another, we would play act out how the other person might feel to help them understand the pain that comes with name calling or not sharing, or whatever it might have been at the time.

2)  The kids shared with us this weekend something that I think has had a huge impact, far more than I would have expected.  They had a job working for someone pulling weeds, and it was a big job, about 5 hours of hard weeding and trimming for all of them.  Dominick and I helped them, and they had not expected that because they were getting paid, but we knew it could have been a little overwhelming and wanted to support their efforts.  In conversations afterward, we talked about work ethic, and it was revealed to us that the kids don't see work as a nasty four letter word because we have always participated in it with them in some form or another.  Angela told us that she has learned that doing things together makes the work seem less difficult.  We do not "order" them to do their "chores", we work together as a family, each perhaps on a different task that is appropriate to skill level or gifts...or even likes or dislikes...but we do not treat our kids as our house servants or slaves (Despite what we were asked in court!) and work becomes a family activity we enjoy doing together.  We'll sing, goof off, or...and maybe this is the important part...commiserate together about how tough a particular job may be.  We also make a point of standing back and making a big deal about the accomplishment at the end and celebrating when the work was done well.

3)  We have a policy, you do not rat each other out, unless it is injury producing.  We will punish the "ratter" as well as the original offender.  This may seem like nonsense to some of you reading this, and you may shake your head in dismay.  We wanted our kids to learn early on that they are a team together, they should stick together unless it is a serious and harmful offense.  But mainly we wanted to curb the whole "I am better than they are, look what bad minor thing they did..." way of thinking.  Adding children into our family who were older, and came home later, this may have been even more important.  The Tattle Tale child is not the beloved one, and it will not elevate you in the eyes of your parents if you tell on someone.  That way, there is an equality that exists and there is no way to get in some sort of imaginary "inner circle" with mom and dad, nor is one child viewed by anyone as any better than another. Actually, as I look back, this may have proven to be one of our more effective parenting tools, as each kid has tried it here or there, but we nipped it in the bud early and firmly, so it never took root.

4)  We sometimes put minor issues aside to talk about when it is heated, and then I will look for opportunities to make my point later, when it is seemingly unrelated, but there is no emotion involved.  I use examples in the news, or other events outside our family to make points about a behavior or action, and it is then heard, not pushed aside out of anger.  For example, if one of the kids has been quick to jump to judgment about something, or hurt someone's feelings, I'll be on the lookout the next couple of days for something to point to and say, "Hmm...remember when you you see now how that might make someone else feel?"

5)  I personally look for teaching moments before something happens.  I use films, news events, etc. to talk about an issue when it has nothing to do with us, but when it is something of value, I use it.  I ask, "What would you do in that situation?" or "What do think about that, what is your opinion?"

6)  Maybe the single most important thing we do, at least in my opinion, is that we have always, always, ALWAYS viewed our kids as valued human beings, and in no way "lesser" because they are young or inexperienced. They deserve the same respect as someone who is 80 years old, simply because they are a child of God, no less and no more than we are.  We have learned so much from the kids, and see them each as carrying their own personal wisdom to share with the world.  When you don't view your children as "just a kid, what do they know", it changes everything.  When Matt and Josh were toddlers, we respected their personhood, and to this day, we view each of our children not really as little adults, for that implies experience, but as humans deserving of all that we would offer any adult.  Lacking experience should NOT equal lacking of respect.

7)  I recall a time when someone once asked my why we would ever say "please" or "thank you" to our children, that children need to do what they are told to do without question, and we owe them nothing in terms of politeness, etc.  I was stunned.  I am a believer in modeling the behavior you want to see.  We always ask our kids politely, and they are generally polite children with others.  It is easier to ask for something in return, if it has also been offered.

8)  We play together.  A lot.  We play games, we lay around and talk, we spend an inordinate amount of time together, and we love it.  All of our kids have asked specifically NOT to have too many activities all year long, because they want time to relax and be at home together.  Dominick is by far the better one at "playing", as even as a kid I was a bit more serious.  But we have many an evening where we are just sitting around talking, flopped on bean bag chairs and splayed across couches.  Matthew always walks around with a deck of cards in his pocket these days, weekly Dominick plays video games with one of the boys, we all play board games together, hang out and watch movies together, and whatever else we can think of.  There comes a point where I think sometimes parents think their kids are too grown up to "play" with, but we were not ready to give up our fun times together just because we hit the teen years.  We just do other things.  If you are not having fun doing things THEY want to do sometimes, it makes everything else harder.

9)  We go to church, we have a faith community, our kids hear over and over again stories about faithfulness, family, and God's love for us all.  For some, this would seem corny.  I don't care, for our family, it has made a tremendous difference and the impact of hundreds of hours of hearing the Gospel message of grace, goodness, acceptance, self-awareness, justice, and so much more has all added up, and it permeates a lot of how we are with one another outside the church walls.  Notice I am not saying "Christian" for I believe that a faith community of any sort can uplift a family, and nurture conversations about Things That Matter.  We happen to find Jesus compelling, that is why we are Christian.  Then there is the wonderful added bonus of SO many people who offer your kids so much of themselves!  We actually can't do it without the added support of others who care for our kids, nurture them, and add to their lives in amazing ways.

10)  We must recognize that we have been blessed with specific children with specific personalities, and we had nothing at all to do with that other than listening to God's leading when it came to adoption.  We have children who came to us naturally kind and loving, and we have worked to smooth out the rough edges.  We take no credit for that.

11)  We don't shy away from the hard conversations.  The minute I get that feeling, that little icky avoidance feeling because it would be easier, I know that is exactly when I need to do just the opposite and we need to bring something out in the open.  I will look my child directly in the eye and say, "Your attitude concerns me, we need to talk about where that is coming from and why it is present."  or "Your reaction is not really about this, we need to talk about what you are really angry about."  I will also say, "I already know what you are thinking, and I know that this very moment you are totally mad at me and think I am being unreasonable.  I know there are moments you walk back to your room saying nasty things in your head.  That's OK, we all did that."  I acknowledge their anger at me, and where it might be coming from.  It defuses things quickly to know that I am not hurt if they secretly are mad, and it strangely draws us closer for them to know I really DO get it and name the feeling they are experiencing without being mad at them for having that feeling.

12)  We point out over and over again strengths we see, and we actually sit around the table and ask each person to name one thing they appreciate in each other, or a strength they see, or a gift they have.  We intentionally and often create opportunities to share in encouraging one another.  We let our kids hear us praising them to others, we do NOT pit one against another, we do not compare and contrast unless it is pertinent, and we don't let them do it with each other.  Important to note, we do not mindlessly praise, our kids have to earn praise and there is much that is expected simply because they are members of Team LaJoy.  In fact, we even HAVE a "Team LaJoy" mentality, which I had no idea had permeated to the degree it had until we left our charter school a month ago and the kids all essentially said, "We don't need a school, we are LaJoy Academy already, and nothing else is going to be better than that.This is real, anything else is made up."  We are intentional about catching each other doing something positive, and naming it, all the time, not just once in a while.

13)  We are geeks, nerds and total oddballs.  We don't let our kids watch too much, or listen to too much that is denigrating of family values.  In other words, we don't let them sink into teen culture that says you must hate your family, your siblings are annoyances, and your parents are stupid.  I am not saying we don't let them watch some TV shows, or other things, but they do not listen to certain kinds of music, they are not Facebooking, they are note immersed in today's teen culture which models for them behavior we find disgusting, disrespectful and distracting.  Because it is not ALL they see and hear, they are able to contrast it themselves with other input, and they often say, "Why do none of those kids on that Disney show ever seem to have parents around?  Why do they all act like everyone else is stupid?"  because it is NOT their norm.  They don't see the typical snotty teenager portrayed on TV as something to look up to or emulate.

I have no idea if this helps, and I am absolutely certain that others who read the blog are more eloquent, or have far better ideas than I can offer.  My heart aches for you, my Blog Friend, because peace at home is perhaps the greatest gift we can ever have. We all need our haven from the world, but sometimes we have no idea how to create those feelings of warmth and intimacy with the personalities involved, and years of habits can be extremely hard to break.  I know that what we lack in many areas is more than made up for in the quiet joy we have with one another. OK, that is a lie, because LaJoy's are NEVER really quiet! Hahaha!  But I hope there is at least something here you can identify with and might be able to use.  My greater hope is that others who are far better at this than I am can offer their encouragement and support, as well ideas, to help you find a way to usher in a new attitude for your family.  

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Joy of Being Found

It's been over a week since I have posted, and that's because I have two or three posts rattling around in my brain that were just not yet ready to be worked out on screen.  I tried to write several different times, then closed the laptop as it just wasn't happening.  Tonight though, I feel one must be written, and I am as clueless as the rest of you why this one, and why tonight. Warning:  Uh oh, watch out, I'm going to get all "churchy" on you with this post, but I urge you, please read on, and please take a moment to view the video clip.

Last week's sermon at church has resided in my soul all week long, and it seems that God has illustrated it over and over often happens when the Spirit is doing something inside us. Have you ever noticed how you just can't seem to escape a particular message?  That it returns to you over and over again in new and different ways to drive the point home?  It has me wondering, what is it that I am not "getting" that God is trying to pound in my head?

Our Pastor is such a gifted and talented preacher.  She has a way of taking Scripture and peeling it apart like a banana, right in front of you, and then offering you the fruit by way of deeper meaning and explanation.  Our Scripture passage was Luke 15:1-7. It's a familiar one, but let me share it here for you:

Luke 15:1-7
The Message (MSG)
The Story of the Lost Sheep

15 1-3 By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their
grumbling triggered this story.

4-7 “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.

We've all heard this one before, I assume that many folks who've never elected to darken the doorway of a church even once in their lives are familiar with this parable, if only culturally.  In reading this passage, we might identify ourselves as the lost sheep, the one who has wandered far astray and rejoices that God cared enough to search for us, never stopping until we were found.

Have you ever felt so lonely, so in need of human connection and healing, that you wondered if you'd ever feel whole again?  If you have lived at all, chances are there has been some period of time when your soul was so very lost, aching, and left with seemingly nowhere to turn.  Others around you may have taken no notice, and you may not have felt safe enough to share your pain with them.  Words may have been inadequate to express exactly what it was you were feeling, but there was this hollow emptiness that nothing seemed to fill.

Or maybe you were literally lost, struggling to figure out your next move in life.  Perhaps it was post-high school or college, maybe it was as you were considering a career change but had no idea what direction to take.

I have often felt this way during the course of my life.  I have wandered aimlessly, I have felt disconnected from humanity even though I was encountering people all day long.  I have experienced that wretched sense of just not belonging, no matter how hard I tried to fit.  In fact, I feel that on a regular basis even today, which many might never perceive.

Blessedly, God has placed people in my life regularly who have embraced me, who welcomed me, who rejoiced in my very presence, making me feel precious.  I have been saved over and over again from loneliness, and I know I will be saved in the future by Spirit People who are seeking me. I realize they may not have known they were specifically seeking me, but their hearts were open, and they continued to listen and search.

Recently I have felt this to a certain degree as I have participated in the Sweet Adelines chorus.  Being a homeschooling mom can leave you with a void for adult interaction, regardless of how much you enjoy what you do every day.  I have been lonely, as I have virtually no friends in our homeschooling community.  I have used Facebook at times to fill my day to day social needs with a wide variety of people who have a little of this or a little of that in common. It is often my "Water Cooler" conversation in between subjects or during lunch breaks, but I've needed more...something...and I really had no clear idea exactly what that was.  The very first time I walked through the door at chorus practice, it was a little as if I was that lost sheep, and the women there who appeared to have very little in common with me welcomed me with arms wide open, and in a small way, I was blessed to once again in my life feel "found".

This week I read the Facebook posts from a fellow Kazakhstan adoptive mom, Stacy Segebarth, who started a ministry called Two Hearts for Hope.  Through her ministry work, she ended up working in Korah, Ethiopia, and life would never be the same.  I don't yet know the entire story, but there she met a young man who was orphaned.  You know, maybe a mom who had "heart children" for so long can see it in others, but as she posted photos of herself with this teen, I recognized something that was so familiar, and I knew how her heart must feel leaving him behind each trip.  You could see it in both of them, there was no denying it.  They were mother and son.  Recently, she was able to get this young man to America to live her with family on a student visa, where he is experiencing the deep love of a mom and entire family.

He was found, and Stacy was Jesus for him, chasing her sheep, never letting him go, never forgetting him, and relentlessly loving him.  It brought tears to my eyes to see his Facebook posts, in which he took her family's last name for his own.  Sadly, some thought that to be inappropriate, and all I could think was, "Yee Haw!!!  He knows who he belongs to and he is claiming it!  Good for him!!", and I know it had to touch his family deeply.  Yes, I call them his family, because they have all decided in their heart of hearts they are family, and no adoption decree can ever do more to validate that, it would just be an afterthought.  He is their son, he has been "found" and their family rejoices!

Adoption may be the most obvious manifestation of the lost and unloved being found and discovering that they are indeed precious to someone.  But it makes me wonder, where have I missed the opportunity to be Jesus in the life of someone who was lost and in desperate need of being found?  Where did I not see it, not act, because that lost sheep was not "pretty", "clean", "smart", or any of the other qualities we value so highly in our culture?  There are just as many hurting adults who don't belong, who have seldom been filled with the joy of being found.  I just have to quote her sermon here, as I loved how Pastor Karen Winkel put it:

"Artists in every age have been unable to resist depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd.   And the variety of renderings is impressive.  It strikes me, though, that the sheep are pretty much always the same.  No matter their size, the sheep are always fine specimens, the kind you'd expect to see depicted in a Dick and Jane reader or an Old MacDonald album cover, the kind we remember from the stained glass window at Hillcrest, clear-eyed and fluffy. 

Where are all the unlovely sheep, I want to know?  The black and blue sheep, the ones with matted wool, the ones in need of doctoring?   The ones who, before they ran off in the wrong direction, always hung out on the perimeter of the flock, never quite belonging?  Where are the sheep whose absence, when the others take notice, causes a not an outcry but rather a collective sigh of relief? 

            The sheep Jesus seeks aren’t  just lost, they are often the ones who feel and even look least loved." 

It was with these words still swirling around in my head this week that I saw the video below, and my heart broke, the tears welled and spilled over.  In the adoption world, it is the older kids who are the "Unlovable Ones".  If you are older than 3 or 4 years old, or heaven forbid a tween or teenager, it is you who are "the ones with matted wool".  Older children are rarely adopted, for they come to relationships not with blank slates, but with chalk marks all over, erasures and re-writes.  They are often a "Hard Sell" for agencies, as they are not cute and cuddly, and people incorrectly assume they all come with attachment disorders (if they only knew how tough it can be with younger ones!).

But every single person deeply yearns to be precious to someone.  All it takes is one person, all it takes is to know that someone wanted you.  In watching this video clip, it was as if God sent a video to illustrate last weeks sermon, to make the pain of being unloved palpable to me.  No, we have no plans to adopt again, but this young girl's willingness to share her pain with the world all with the hope that someone might find her precious was the perfect reminder that there are those with gray hair who feel hopeless and lost, there are those whose lives are a mess who need to be precious, there are those who even look like they have it all together who might very well surprise us with their ache and longing if we only knew.

Please watch this, it's only 3 minutes, watch to the end:

May each of us find a way to be Jesus in the lives of those we meet.  May we each understand the need in all to experience the joy of being found.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Toddlers to Teens

It's 9:30 pm and I pull up in front of the house.  It's dark and damp out, and I'm returning from choir practice, having missed Olesya and Matthew's first volleyball game of the season.  Several hours ago, Dominick drove off with the van full, headed toward Grand Junction, while I spent the next couple of hours blissfully alone in the house before heading off to another night of singing and laughter with the Sweet Adelines chorus.

Walking through the front door, Dominick tells me the kids all just headed off to bed, but within moments they find their way down the hall and to the kitchen, where we spend the next hour rehashing the game (it was bad!), the singing (it was good!), and Matt's Civil Air Patrol meeting (it was ok!).  Voices tumbled over one another, as we gathered, teased, and talked.

It was one of those moments...the kind where you smile at your life and send a prayer up as you sit filled with incredible gratitude.  Dominick is leaning on the counter behind, watching...listening...grinning.  He looks at me and says, "Mom's home!" as they all continue to go on sharing about their adventures of the afternoon.  I hear Olesya's perspective as she tells me it was not her best game, but she was happy because even though they lost, they all played together well as a team, better than they have in practice.  Angela is giggling up a storm as she talks about how Dad was goofing around during the game and kept her laughing the whole much so that she whacked her head on the wall behind her as she responded to one of his jokes.  Josh arrives on the scene, smelling Old Spice fresh, hair damp from his shower.  Matthew sits down and shows me his rug burn from the game, which was played on a carpeted surface.  I lean over and kiss it, look up at him, and that deep voice says, "Thanks Mom, now it's all better!" and we all find that hilarious.  Kenny starts laughing and can.not.stop. for some reason, and we all laugh because he is laughing.

There was nothing special about the hour we spent together, and yet there was everything special about it.  I am old enough, and wise enough, to know that these moments are missing from many families, and that the constant tension that fills the rooms of so many homes is more the norm than the scene before me.  There are families of teens who seldom speak to one another, doing nothing more than brushing shoulders as they pass one another in the hall on their way back to their bedrooms, where they live in isolation with technology and Facebook.  They emerge only to leave for school or activities, then cocoon again once they return, offering parents not much more than grunts or annoyed expressions at their attempts to engage their kids in conversation.

We are blessed, all of us.  Oh, we have days, just like everyone else, days where I complain about the dirty dishes that don't make it to the dishwasher, the brain death that seems to occur because of Teenage Syndrome, the four thousand six hundred and ninety one hairbands that I have to pick up that are magically migrating everywhere but to the bathroom.  There are days when we all need a break from one another, when school work is too challenging, when deficits are harder to work with, or when we just don't feel like doing anything that day.  We muscle through, we "kick bootie" as we like to say, we talk about the frustrations and we find solutions.  Basically, our motto is, "We Try".

We have conversations that are different, our experiences season our dialogue.  Genetics lessons are filled with references to the parents who are no longer parenting, and the questions of who we really are hang in the air above us, like empty cartoon speech balloons waiting for answers to fill them.  Frank discussions about Sex Ed are honest and direct, and as the days go on, they grow to contain the pain of abandonment, and contraception and abortion statistics take on new meaning.  We talk about mechanics and responsibilities, about choices and consequences.  They become more comfortable asking questions, and I become ever more grateful that these conversations are happening around our kitchen table rather than in a classroom, where morals are infused along with the information.  This isn't "The Talk", that happened long ago.  This is relationship training, this is reproduction explained in depth with visuals, this is conversation about sex that is not fear or guilt based, but is realistic, thorough, and is about so much more than naming body parts.  It is about recognizing choices that one day, not too far in the future, they will be making.  Much to the surprise of an outsider, I am sure, there is little blushing or discomfort, for this is little more than an extension of the work that has been going on since Day One.  Really, we are talking about Life...not Sex...and it is apparent to me as time goes on that they are all viewing it as that, which pleases me.

Years ago I had a specific hope for our family.  We had toddlers and preschoolers at the time, and I vividly recall hoping that as our kids grew older, we would somehow find a way to be close knit and that we wouldn't lose them to teen culture.  I hoped we would have Big Talks about Big Things, that our kids wouldn't automatically treat us with the usual disdain that arrives around 13 years old, and that we all would have a great appreciation for one another throughout our lives.  Our three older adoptees were a mere gleam in our eye at the time, when I had a conversation with someone that remains seared in my mind.  It went basically like this..."You're crazy, by about 10 your kids will push you away, and by 13 you are sort of done parenting.  You'll be lucky if they acknowledge your presence by the time they are 15, let alone have any meaningful conversations.  It'll never happen."  Wow, talk about a depressing forecast for our future!

And yet I knew how true that was in so many homes. I yearned for more for all of us.

Somehow, we pulled it off.  Some have said it is at great sacrifice, I vehemently do not see it that way.  It is at great gain!  Sure, we have had to give up a few things, but they are nothing of value.  Yes, we are probably stressed over money a lot, but who isn't?  If I were out working and bringing home a paycheck, I doubt that our financial concerns would change, it would just be over different things.

I get to be greeted warmly by our teenage children!  I get to spend my days with the most interesting people ever, engaged in the most interesting conversations I could ever wish for as we wrestle with Syria and the dehumanization of "the other" so that killing is easier, compare and contrast war with individual relationships,  and talk about how the cycle of poverty might be broken and why it is so difficult.  We read Maya Angelou together, we talk about the Green Lantern and his Super Powers, we dissect things both literally and figuratively.  We create, we write, we grow.  Most importantly, we stay deeply connected, and we imagine our futures.

Sometimes I wonder, do most parents walk through their life recognizing how fortunate they are?  Do they spend as much time in overwhelming gratitude for the kids that bless their lives?  Does a smile spring to their lips when their children cross their minds?  Do they often exchange looks with their spouse over the tops of their kids's heads as they listen to their excited talk about friends, sports, or comic book characters?  I do know we might be totally weird.  I recognize that being childless for the first 13 years of our marriage may make a tremendous difference in how we approach family life.  I do see how our kids may view family differently based upon their own prior lives.  But I hope, with all my heart, that most parents feel this way.  I hope, with all my heart, that there is as much joy in many families of teens as there is in families of toddlers.

Kenny summed it up somewhat humorously for me today as we drove home from yet another orthodontist appointment.  He was evidently feeling introspective this morning as out of the blue he said, "Mom, thank you for the dentist and my braces.  I was just thinking that most kids probably don't even think about saying thanks to their parents for something so expensive."  I said he was very welcome, and he grew quiet again for a moment, then said, "You know, Mom, we are all so lucky to have each other.  The circle of life is so cool, someday you and Dad might need help with your teeth, and maybe I'll be able to help with that.  That may sound silly, but I am glad our family is something we can all count on so we all have what we need.  But mostly, I am glad I am in a family where I can just be happy and we have fun."

So, as I contemplate with great gratitude that one day my son will eagerly purchase my dentures, I will rest easy, knowing I am loved!  

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Soft and Silent Sunday

It is Sunday afternoon, and we are taking a day of rest, or at least a partial day of rest.  We attended church this morning, and the kids asked to spend the rest of the day working on school work so they could start the week caught up.  Volleyball season is taking 3 full afternoons a week from us, then we still volunteer on Monday mornings at the Food Bank, as well as this week we will be there Tuesday afternoon for our monthly help as they unload their big order.

The kids have been working SO, SO hard, and Dominick and I are very proud of how they have quietly stepped up to the plate.  We knew volleyball would require extra efforts, so we made a pledge during the season to try and get to the table by 7:30 am each morning to begin work.  They've done so every single day, without complaint, and are tackling a lot of subjects each week.  We usually do school far more hours than many do who homeschool, but our situation is a little different as well.  We are normally at school 8-9 hours a day...this is our job, and we take it seriously.  I have noticed that, over time, the kids' attention span has definitely increased, and they are usually the ones asking to do "...just a couple more pages, then we are at the end of the chapter."

We had good news this week, but it will make the next couple of months even more hectic.  Under normal circumstances, we would nix the idea as it is just too much, but it is just until the end of October, then we can let life get back to normal.  We have all been bummed to learn that our TaeKwonDo instructor retired.  He was a really firm, kind, wonderful teacher and we had four kids left to obtain their black belts, all of whom were one step away except Olesya, who was just two steps away.  We looked at alternatives so they kids could finish up, but they were too far away or too expensive.  We got a call from our local Rec Center that they found an instructor and wanted to know if we were interested.  I have to call them back first thing tomorrow, but everyone is thrilled to have their chance to complete the long road to black belt that they have all worked so hard for.  It is going to mean being gone every week night, which certainly doesn't thrill any of us, but it is the accomplishment of a goal that is well worthwhile, so we all decided that short term, it will eb worth it.

Taking the time this weekend to rest and catch up is just what we needed.  The house is very quiet as everyone studies or works on projects.  I decided this afternoon I was taking the rest of the day laundry, no cookin', nuthin'!  It feels good to let go of everything for a few hours before the new week arrives.

I hope everyone else had a little rest this weekend, too!  Sorry I have nothing more interesting to write about!

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A Labor Day with a Little Labor, a Little Fun!

Labor Day weekend has passed, and it included some labor as well as some fun!  We spent the weekend with a fair amount of relaxing, including having friends over for dinner a couple of times, playing card games, watching movies, and having late night conversations.  Dominick had to work early mornings, and we all worked yesterday afternoon and evening at the airport restaurant, where we served folks leaving the Telluride Film Festival.

We had a little surprise yesterday morning, when we drove to Grand Junction to watch Dominick use his birthday gift from February...a 30 minute trip around the Go Kart race track!  The kids and I pitched in together to buy him a gift certificate, as we thought he would get a huge kick out of it.  What we didn't know was his reason for delaying going up to redeem his certificate, and that was that he was trying to save enough money for ALL of us to be able to race together!  As we arrived and went inside, he surprised us all by giving up his 30 minutes, and contributing extra so that all of us could race for 10 minutes.  We tried to talk him out of it, but he said, "No way, we're all going to have fun!".  For the kids, this was their first real experience driving anything that was not on a contained track, and they were ecstatic.  Here's a peek at the preparations, though I have no pics of us on the track since we were all in our little cars:

We are hitting the age with the kids when many folks are now starting to make comments about when they start driving, dating, etc.  Angela is 15 1/2, and eligible for a permit if age were our only criteria.  Suffice it to say, none of our kids will be driving at 16.  It isn't just about the money, though of course for us that is a huge concern.  My years as an insurance agent were enough to show me that 16 is too young to be a responsible, careful driver for most kids, and Dominick and I said our kids wouldn't drive at 16 many years ago.    Most would probably not believe it, but we have don't have an ounce of push back from the kids about that.  We have had a couple of long conversations with all the kids, and explained our reasons why we want them to wait, and backed it up with current accident statistics.  I showed them this chart:

Also, I think many adults with kids who are grown and gone are unaware of the national trend toward driving at later ages.  I have been keeping abreast of this, for obvious reasons, and I am sure much of it has to do with the economic downturn and that there are fewer entry level jobs available to youth to begin to save for a car, gas, insurance, etc.  I thought I'd share this here as it might be a surprise to many to see the dramatic shifts in teen driving.  In the early-mid 80's when Dominick and I were in our teens, by 17 EVERYONE seemed to have a driver's license, and indeed it appears that 70% had one...and a car...and the attendant costs.  When you look at 2010, less than 45% of teens have a license at 17 years old, and in fact it isn't until you reach the 20-24 year olds that you see the % of younger drivers reaching that 70% mark.  Surprising, isn't it? :

The kids are also wise enough, and seasoned enough travelers to understand that where we live means far different driving conditions than some kids have...say like I did in Southern California.  We have explained to them that we will talk about a permit at 17, and then we want them to have enough all weather hours behind the wheel that we feel confident in their skill level before we turn them lose on winter mountain roads.  With 4 kids who are all a year and four months apart, it will take us awhile to accumulate enough driving time for each of the kids to get a lot of practice!  It's not like having them spread 2 years apart, that's for sure.  

So driving on a contained track in little go karts, even if only for 10 minutes, was a real treat and we all enjoyed it!  Dominick, of course, came in first by a long shot, while Matthew wasn't far behind.  I spun out twice, and then waited to assist Olesya and Josh at different times, both of whom ended up spinning out with lots of giggle, so I ended up at the end of the pack.  

After our special surprise, it was off to Kmart to find some clothes for Angela and Kenny, both of whom we have a hard time finding appropriate things for.  With their Labor Day 65% off sale, we were able to make quite a haul and outfit them with a few new things each.  The kids all decided we ought to make this our annual Labor Day ritual...driving on the track and Kmart shopping.  Yea, it takes very little to get us excited...the thrill of the chase, both on the track and in the shops!

We rushed back to town to be to work at 3:30 PM, where we all worked for a few hours before hitting the hay early.  We are starting our school days at 7:30 AM, which means an early wake up for all of us at around 6:15 AM.  I am glad we have managed to be disciplined about that, because I am the WORST about getting up early!

In between the labor and the fun this weekend, I had a late night conversation with Angela which was so sweet.  Among other things we talked about, she wanted to reassure me that what I did every day teaching them mattered.  She said she knew I was doing something very different from many moms, and that I might feel at times like my "job" was not important.  She said to me, "Mom, what you are doing is as important as a college professor.  I have thought a lot about this, and if we end up not learning what we need to learn, it effects our own kids, and their kids, and their kids.  It also means we don't do good on jobs or anything else, so everyone we work with is effected as well.  I think what you are doing is super important, and you do it really well.  I was thinking the other day that I never thought I would learn English so fast, or so many other things.  When I came home, I was actually dumb.  I was a bad student in school, I didn't know many things for my age, and I think I have learned more in 3 years here with you than I learned in my whole life until then.  Most important, if I had not been at home with you, I wouldn't have understood God. The past 6 months or so I think I totally get what you have tried to teach us about how following God makes it all just work better.  Before, I didn't really get it.  But you keep explaining things to me, showing where God is in it, and where God is in me.  I never would have learned that in a regular school.  In fact, I probably would have made fun of it."  then she added, "You are probably the best teacher I will ever have, even though I know I will have other good teachers.  You work so hard to make sure we get a good education.  I hope you know we all are very lucky to have you, and I want to thank you for all you went through the past few months trying to make sure things were best for us.  It was very hard for you, and it feels so much better now.  I am glad you and Dad made the decision, and I know you must be a little scared.   But we all will pull together, and we will have all the things we need to learn.  We will share our money so we all get our books or paper.  We are a Team, remember?  We are Team LaJoy, and it is the best team we will ever be on."

Wow.  That conversation alone made every sleepless night worthwhile.  It was a strong reminder that none of us are in this alone, and that one way or another, we will make it.  We are a team, and like the Marines, no man gets left behind.  Dad doesn't get left alone at work if he needs help, Mom doesn't get left hanging with house work, kids have all the help they need with Mom and Dad side by side encouraging them and believing in them.  As I worried about taking away a sense of "belonging" if we let the school, I forgot one little thing...we all already belong to each other.  We work together, we play together, we pray and laugh together. A little labor and a little fun makes for a wonderful life!